There are several positive lifestyle factors that can promote good health if you want to live a long and healthy life. Certainly, you can’t change your genes or much of the environment around you, but making educated and intentional choices when it comes to diet, activity, sleep, alcohol use, and smoking can reduce your health risks and potentially add years to your life.
There are massive texts and hundreds of article you could read about factors that have beneficial or negative effects on your physical well-being. That said, these six lifestyle modifications are the ones that have the best evidence for maximizing your longevity.
Getting Regular and Adequate Amounts of Sleep
Getting a regular and adequate amount of sleep is first on our list as it is often downplayed in importance relative to diet and exercise. The relationship between sleep and life expectancy has been demonstrated in many studies, but what surprises some people is that the relationship is a U-shaped curve. In other words, both too little and too much sleep raise mortality (the risk of death).
A 2017 review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association further supports this finding. In this review, the “ideal” duration of sleep (that which was associated with the lowest risk of early death) was 7 hours each night
There is some evidence that women are more susceptible to the negative effects of sleep deprivation, but regardless of sex or age, a good night’s sleep is important.
Sleep gives your body a chance to restore and regenerate. Not only does it recharge the proverbial “batteries” but it also attends to all of the metabolic functions required by the body, such as regenerating old cells, getting rid of wastes and repairing cell damage. For those who give up on needed sleep to study, keep in mind that sleep is important in making memories, and sleep deprivation leads to forgetfulness.
Even if it’s your intent to sleep well, medical conditions can sometimes get in the way. Sleep apnea is a condition that can greatly increase health risks. While the condition affects millions of Americans, it’s thought to be vastly underdiagnosed. Part of the reason is that symptoms such as snoring and waking up gasping for air are not always present, and sleep apnea can present with a number of surprising signs and symptoms. If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor about a sleep study as treatments (such as CPAP and other interventions) can reduce your risk and improve your life.
Changes in your sleep patterns can also be a sign of a change in your health, so see your doctor for a checkup if anything changes.
Eating Regular Well-Balanced Meals
A healthy, balanced diet can help provide energy and lower your risks for the leading chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer. It can also help you maintain a normal weight. Certain diseases or conditions have proven relationships with specific nutrition or dietary elements.
Rather than jumping on the latest fad diet, however, a positive change in dietary lifestyle is what grants the greatest protection. The guru of eating healthy for life, Michael Pollan, summed up his recommendations by stating, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of those plants, you have the best chance of getting the phytonutrients you need by eating a rainbow of colors.
Still, it’s helpful to have some guidance on what to eat day to day, and this underlies many of the popular diet fads. If you’re wondering where to begin, the Mediterranean diet is rich in many of the “healthiest” foods and avoids many of the less healthy choices.
That this dietary approach is helpful is backed by a 2018 review that looked at over 12 million people and the risk of over a dozen chronic diseases. The researchers found that following a Mediterranean diet was inversely proportional to the risk of health conditions including heart disease, strokes, cancer (overall), and neurogenerative diseases.
Stated another way, the more you follow the Mediterranean diet, the lower your risk of a host of diseases.
Some of the components of the Mediterranean diet include fruits and vegetables (a lot), nuts and seeds, seafood, whole grains, good extra virgin olive oil, and plenty of herbs and spices. Foods that aren’t included include highly processed foods, refined grains, refined oils, and added sugar.
Engaging in Regular Physical Activity
Thirty minutes a day of regular physical activity contributes to health by reducing heart rate, decreasing the risk for cardiovascular disease, and reducing the amount of bone loss that is associated with age and osteoporosis. At the current time, lack of exercise is thought to contribute to 9 percent of breast cancers and 10 percent of colon cancers in Europe.
A 2017 review in Lancet found that participating in moderate recreational and non-recreational physical activity every day was correlated with a reduced risk of heart disease and overall mortality regardless of income.
Best of all, not only can physical activity be a low-cost way to improve your health (and perhaps lifespan), but it can even save you money.
Think: washing your windows, mowing your lawn, sweeping a sidewalk, and more. (It’s important to note that people with some medical conditions should not perform this level of activity.)
Once you are past age 65, the requirements don’t go down, and you may benefit by adding balance exercises and flexibility exercises.
You may wonder what researchers mean by moderate intensity exercise. There are many options, but it’s important to find activities that you enjoy and will continue to do such as:
- Walking briskly
- Ballroom dancing
- Bicycling slowly on level ground
- Leisure swimming
Maintaining a Healthy Body Weight
Obesity is associated with a shorter lifespan and also with an increased risk of many chronic diseases. The good news is that just being somewhat overweight does not reduce your longevity, and for those over the age of 65, it’s actually better to be on the high side of normal than the low side.
A 2018 study (part of the Framingham heart study) looked at body mass index and mortality over a period of 24 years. (A normal body mass index is between 19 and 24.) For those who were obese, people who had a body mass index of 30 to 35 had a 27 percent increase in mortality, and those who had a body mass index of 35 to 40 had a 93 percent increase.
What Weight is Ideal?
Among those who were overweight but not obese (had a body mass index between 25 and 30), mortality was only increased among those who also smoked.
People with a body mass index on the high side of normal (e.g. 24) had the lowest mortality.
There isn’t any real magic when it comes to maintaining (or getting to) a normal body mass index. Eating a healthy diet (not too much and avoiding empty calories) and exercising daily (even if it’s fun activities such as gardening) are the true “secret.”
In the past, eating breakfast was stressed as necessary for optimal health. Research is now changing that thought, and intermittent fasting (going for 13 or more hours each day without eating) may have some benefits. Though the concept and research to back it up are young, intermittent fasting may help with weight loss and appears to have benefits in cancer risk reduction as well.
If you’re struggling, talk with your doctor. But keep in mind that fad diets don’t work, and your greatest chance of success lies in adopting long-term healthy eating patterns and engaging in regular physical activity for life.
Not Using Tobacco Products, Including Smoking or Chewing
Smoking accounts for over 400,000 deaths a year in the United States alone. Added to this are another 16 million people who are alive but coping with a smoking-related illness. If you want to live an enjoyable life for however long you live, don’t smoke or chew tobacco.
The list of diseases and cancers attributed to smoking is long, but sometimes long-range concerns prompt less change than immediate concerns.
If you’re struggling to quit, it may help to think of immediate consequences. Perhaps the cost, or the social aspects of being a smoker when smoking has been banned in many places.
Or maybe the mid-range consequences will motivate you. For women (and men), smoking accelerates wrinkling. For men, it’s not just the arteries that supply the heart that are affected by tobacco. Smaller arteries in another region of the body are similarly damaged, and there is a significant association between smoking and erectile dysfunction.
Using Alcohol in Moderation or Not at All
Despite the hype over red wine and longevity alcohol should be consumed only in moderation, and for many people, not at all. Red wine (in moderation) has been found to offer protection against diseases ranging from heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease, but you don’t need to drink red wine to get these benefits.
Red wine is rich in flavonoids, particularly the phytonutrient resveratrol. Resveratrol, however, is also found in red grape juice, red grapes, and even peanuts.
Moderate alcohol consumption (one drink for women, two for men) may lower heart disease, but the link between alcohol and breast cancer suggests that even this amount should be used with caution. For women, every 10 grams of alcohol (a “serving” of alcohol contains roughly eight grams) raises the risk of breast cancer by 7 percent to 12 percent.
Higher levels of alcohol can lead to health and behavioral problems, including an increased risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, some cancers, accidents, violence, suicide, and deaths in general.
To celebrate a special moment, and when done in noderation—after all, mental and social well-being rank right up there with physical health—moderate intake of alcohol, by those who don’t have a problem with alcohol and are not predisposed to alcohol abuse, may be part of a healthy lifestyle. As long as everyone present has a good understanding of the dangers of alcohol before drinking to your toast.
A Word From Tips For Healthy Living
These 6 lifestyle behaviors can go a long way in raising the odds that you will live a long, healthy life. But we know that living goes beyond good health, and mental, social, and spiritual health are equally important. Practicing stress management, developing a passion or hobby, and pampering yourself at times should be high on your to-do list.
Yet even when people are doing everything right, it’s not always possible to avoid physical illness or mental stress. Many health professionals now believe that the ability to “roll with the punches” of life, or exhibit resilience, is a skill we should all cultivate if we wish to live our best life today.